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Justices Take Up Battle Over Exxon Valdez

Publication Date: 
February 28, 2008
The New York Times
Linda Greenhouse

Linda Greenhouse reports on the Exxon Valdez hearing for the Times:

Exxon’s appeal of the biggest punitive damage award ever upheld in federal court led to a lively Supreme Court argument in which everything was open to dispute, from the significance of a 200-year-old case about robbery on the high seas to the world of modern maritime commerce in which a 1,000-foot tanker like the Exxon Valdez is considered a separate “business unit” in the organization chart of its corporate owner.

With Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. not participating, a result of his ownership of Exxon Mobil stock, the possibility of a 4-to-4 tie was clearly present. A tie would affirm the appeals court’s judgment in favor of a class of 32,000 fishermen and business owners, who stand to receive about $75,000 apiece from the $2.5 billion award. It was abundantly clear to everyone in the crowded courtroom that if the plaintiffs could just hold on to four votes, they would win the case.


The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Jeffrey L. Fisher, a Stanford Law School professor, told the justices that the question of precedent was “more or less an open issue before you today.” Mr. Fisher said that “you have a smattering of a few old cases that lean in different directions.”


... The defense argued that federal maritime law simply did not permit an award of this size. The federal courts have considerable discretion to define the contours of maritime law, a fact that led to a more open consideration of policy than is usually the case. It was on this ground that Justice Stephen G. Breyer challenged Mr. Fisher.


“What principles do you have to suggest, if any,” the justice asked Mr. Fisher, “for creating a fair system that isn’t just arbitrary?”

Rigorous appellate review, to weed out “passion and prejudice,” would address that problem, Mr. Fisher said.